The stage keeps getting bigger for Joe Burrow, and it clearly doesn’t matter. The LSU quarterback wasn’t programmed with an off switch. Saturday, in the College Football Playoff semifinals, the newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner delivered his best game of an already incredible season, throwing for 403 yards with seven touchdowns in the first half of a 63-28 beatdown of fourth-ranked Oklahoma.
Oklahoma’s defense appeared demoralized by the end of the first quarter, at which point it had already lost one starter to injury and a second to a targeting ejection. The Peach Bowl was all but over with 10 minutes left in the first half. By the third quarter, LSU was going through the motions. Would it have been ruder for the Tigers to just start kneeling the ball on their first possession after halftime?
It feels hyperbolic to call Burrow’s outing the most impressive big-game performance of any quarterback in college football history, but how can it not be in the conversation? Prior to Saturday, only one QB had ever passed for seven touchdowns in a bowl game, and that was Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush during the 2014 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. Not to disparage the memory of that Bahamas Bowl classic, but this game had slightly higher stakes. And Burrow would have been even more prolific if he hadn’t broken the Sooners in less than 30 minutes of game time.
Watching Burrow throw touchdowns has become my religion, as Burrow has taught me to have faith that even his passes that seem like bad ideas are actually bound for greatness. On Saturday, that greatness was evident: He went 29-of-39 for 493 yards with seven passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, and one ass-kicking for the ages. Let’s explain that ass-kicking by ranking each of Burrow’s eight scores.
8. 2-yard pass to Terrace Marshall Jr. (0:50 seconds remaining, second quarter)
Is it possible for a team to run up the score in the first half? You’d think not, right? Well, if there is such a thing, it surely looks a lot like this—Burrow flicking a half-hearted toss to a completely unguarded receiver with the Tigers already up by 28 points. Burrow’s choices were to throw the ball to the wide, wide, wide-open target in the back of the end zone, or to take a knee in the middle of the field as a protest against how easy Oklahoma was making his job. He chose the touchdown.
7. 3-yard run (10:11 remaining, third quarter)
I wouldn’t have called a keeper for my hypertalented quarterback with my team up 49-14 in a national semifinal and the championship game two weeks away. Then again, who am I to question the decision-making of a coaching staff whose team was up 49-14 in a national semifinal and set to play in the championship game in two weeks?
6. 62-yard pass to Thaddeus Moss (4:18 remaining, second quarter)
The official SportsCenter account lied when it wrote that Oklahoma defenders got “Mossed” on this play. Getting Mossed is when a player makes a contested catch directly over a defender, like Thaddeus Moss’s father Randy did routinely in the NFL. On this play, the younger Moss needed sonar to detect the closest Sooner.
Oklahoma got Burrowed, just like it had before, and just like it would again.
5. 19-yard pass to Justin Jefferson (12:03 remaining, first quarter)
LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was listed as questionable for the Peach Bowl with a hamstring injury. Edwards-Helaire came into the game on this play, and Oklahoma’s defense in turn played to stop the run. Burrow read the safety crashing down, pulled the ball on an RPO, and fired a pass to Jefferson on a slant for a touchdown. Burrow is deadly on option plays, another reminder that he’s not just a talented thrower, but also exceptional at figuring out what the defense is giving him and exploiting its choices.
4. 35-yard pass to Justin Jefferson (1:16 remaining, first quarter)
This is a throw that average quarterbacks would love to have on their career highlight reels, a dart dropped over the shoulder of a receiver streaking to the end zone. But this isn’t an average quarterback; it’s Joe Burrow. And it’s his fourth-most impressive touchdown of the game.
3. 8-yard pass to Terrace Marshall Jr. (4:24 remaining, first quarter)
On rare occasions Saturday, Oklahoma made Burrow work for touchdowns. Here, he had to ditch the pocket and hit a crossing receiver while moving to his left. I’d say that squeezing a throw in to a tightly contested receiver while on the run was “a video-game throw,” but do you remember the Madden vision cone? This pass hasn’t always worked in video games.
2. 30-yard pass to Justin Jefferson (9:17 remaining, second quarter)
Remember our earlier conversation about Mossing? Perhaps this Jefferson highlight will help explain what that means. Sometimes Burrow launches a throw to a receiver who looks like he’s covered, but Burrow knows that the receiver will make a late adjustment to go get the ball. Here, Jefferson slams on the breaks and leaps to snag a Burrow bomb as an Oklahoma defender flies past him to infamy.
This was Jefferson’s fourth touchdown of the first half. I suspect that many wide receivers plan out their celebrations; I doubt that Jefferson had four first-half celebrations planned. Luckily, when you score four touchdowns in a half, the appropriate celebration is easy to improvise.
Touchdown Receptions in Mercedes-Benz Stadium— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) December 29, 2019
Justin Jefferson (2019): 5
Julio Jones (2018-2019): 5 pic.twitter.com/6FjPmuEhyF
1. 42-yard pass to Justin Jefferson (12:13 remaining, second quarter)
Some of Burrow’s touchdowns Saturday were the result of the Sooners’ laissez-faire attitude toward defense, as Oklahoma let LSU roam freely through the plains in the middle of a playoff game. Some were examples of LSU’s exceptional scheming, as passing game coordinator Joe Brady is brilliant at drawing up route patterns that spring playmakers open. Some were examples of the remarkable ability of LSU’s wide receivers, some of whom will undoubtedly go on to play in the NFL.
All of those elements are present here: Oklahoma’s defense fails, the play design works, and Jefferson makes a terrific catch. But the throw itself is a work of unmistakable brilliance by Burrow. While sprinting toward the sideline, he uncorks a 45-yard pass to a receiver in tight coverage, with one defender blanketing him and a safety closing in quickly. The pass drops perfectly to the receiver’s outside shoulder, inches past the outstretched arm of the cornerback. It’s so absurd that I would chalk it up to pure luck if Burrow hadn’t made throws like it time and again this season.
The national title game and the NFL await Burrow, but it feels like we’ve just witnessed his signature performance. After capping a regular season that’s among the greatest in college football history, Burrow played the best game of his career—and one of the best games any college quarterback has ever played—in the playoff.
I choose to view this performance in the same way I’ve learned to view throws like the one above. Just when it seems like Burrow has reached his pinnacle, he manages to do something even more spectacular.